Follow high school grads as they say goodbye to a senior year stolen by coronavirus

Two-thirds of St. Francis high graduates don’t go on to college. When coronavirus canceled graduation, the school dreamed up a unique way to honor them.

Streamers and balloons fly off cars congregated in the parking lot of St. Francis High School. The last day of school came abruptly in March, but in mid-June, the tiny town of St. Francis, Wisconsin, turned up to celebrate with a parade.

The Berry twins—Zakiria (the shorter one) and Anaste (the fashionable one)—waited in their mom’s red Chrysler for the parade to start. They wore long white robes, like all the girls in St. Francis High School’s class of 2020, with white mortar boards pulled over curly hair extensions they’d gotten the day before. Their mom sat behind the wheel and their younger siblings filled the car. A blown-up portrait of the twins in matching schoolgirl uniforms—taken months before coronavirus snatched away their senior year—was taped to the back windshield.

On this June afternoon, a long procession of cars plastered with pictures, balloons, and streamers idled in the parking lot of St. Francis High School, which perches on the outskirts of Milwaukee in the two-square-mile town of St. Francis, Wisconsin.

Benny Draeger waited for the signal to go with a heap of red-and-white pom-poms on his Honda’s roof and “BLM” painted on the back windows. He wore the same cherry red robes as the other senior guys, but unzipped enough to show a bright floral print shirt—a hint of his signature style. Most of Benny’s classmates, with whom he’d just spent 13 years in school, knew he wanted to be a fashion designer.

In the black Volkswagen his uncle had left him the summer before, Owen Dailey took off the St. Francis-branded face mask. He’d adorned the car with balloons and streamers, scrawling “O-DAWG” and the number of his pitcher’s uniform in marker on the windows. Draped over his gown, he wore a gold medal won at a business competition, along with the National Honor Society stole and tassels. He was one step closer to becoming the first member of his family to go to college.

This spring, schools across America have scrambled to reinvent graduation. In the era of coronavirus, crowded auditoriums and diploma hand-offs were swapped for lawn signs, livestreamed ceremonies, and class photo montages posted on social media. In St. Francis, a town of fewer than 10,000 people, the idea of the senior class graduating high school with no pageantry was unthinkable. So Principal Mike Lewandowski decided to throw a parade.

At the staging grounds in the school parking lot, teachers handed out masks with the St. Francis logo. Students in red and white robes posed with embossed booklets that would hold the diplomas being mailed to them. Lewandowski took a picture with each graduating senior. Then he made his way to the front of the cars, lined up behind a firetruck escort.

“Mariners!” he shouted. “Start your engines!”

An unexpected last day

During the last class period on Friday, March 13, Lewandowski’s voice came crackling over the intercom. St. Francis would be closing for the next few weeks, he announced. All after-school activities were canceled. Students should collect everything from their lockers and return home immediately. They could use the office phone if they needed to call their parents.

It was painful to say those words aloud. Lewandowski had spent the previous weeks reassuring his students and staff that the school wasn’t going to close. But COVID-19 continued to spread in Milwaukee County (there are now more than 10,000 cases and 339 deaths), and earlier that day, the superintendent told him to send students home. Lewandowski thought about his students who live in single-parent homes. Many, he knew, “depend on the adults in our building to give them a sense of security, and safety, and normalcy.”

He also knew that two-thirds of the senior class wouldn’t continue on to a four-year college. This was their last graduation. “It wasn’t fair,” he said. This final semester was meant to contain the rewards for four years of hard work: prom, the school musical, the senior picnic, senior skip day. For months, students had been selling coupon books to fundraise for prom, which was being held, for the first time, at the Discovery World museum in nearby Milwaukee on May 9.

The Berry twins weren’t in school to hear Lewandowski’s announcement. They’d overslept, and, since they only had three classes, decided to skip the rest of the day. They were just getting up when their little brother, a freshman at St. Francis, FaceTimed. In the background, his teacher was instructing the students to gather their books and go home. “He said,” Zakiria recalls, “We wouldn’t be at school for a minute.”

Most people can tell the twins apart—especially since Anaste has a taste for dressing up while Zakiria prefers sweatshirts—but their personalities, they say, are identical. Later, when the permanence of that final day set in, both thought about one thing: prom. They lived for school dances—homecoming, Halloween, Valentine’s Day—when they’d get ready together, and afterward, drive to a local ice cream parlor where everyone congregated for a debrief. They’d missed junior prom for their mother’s wedding. Now senior prom was canceled. Zakiria had designed a custom floor-length red gown covered in rose petals. It was half done when she texted the designer to cancel the order, forfeiting her deposit.

Benny Draeger’s mom, Kerry, broke the news to him. He wasn’t at St. Francis much senior year, having arranged a nonconventional schedule. He mostly went to visit his study hall teacher, who he viewed as a father figure. Benny wore floral clothes, loved reptiles, and always felt like somewhat of an outsider at St. Francis. But after “being looked at oddly” his whole life, he’d recently found a place he fit in. That March, he’d made his debut in drag at a RuPaul’s Drag Race premiere party in Milwaukee. He had been taken for a working drag queen and was even offered some gigs. School closing meant he had more time to perfect his act.

Owen Dailey had bet his friend Adam that school wouldn’t be canceled. Now, as Lewandowski’s voice blared over the intercom, he’d lost $10. Owen had just returned from a statewide student business meet, where he won gold, and was walking the halls with the medal around his neck.

As a sophomore, Owen moved to Wisconsin from Alabama to live with his uncle. It was a rocky start. On his first day of school, he accidentally flipped his lunch tray onto the floor in front of the whole cafeteria. The next year his uncle started using meth and checked into rehab. The summer before senior year, Owen found himself homeless. He’d been living with his baseball coach ever since, and lost contact with his uncle. Despite all this, by senior year Owen was pitching for the baseball team, taking AP math, and attending more than a dozen extracurricular clubs.

Three months at home

The week after St. Francis High closed was spring break, and the following week felt like an extended vacation. But as more time passed, realization set in: Had that random Friday been their last real day of school? Zakiria, Anaste, Benny, and Owen, like their classmates, like high school seniors across America, tried to make it through the strange, quiet weeks that followed. To accommodate students who had to work or help watch their siblings, St. Francis opted for a less-structured remote program. Teachers issued assignments for the week on Mondays, and grades were switched to pass/fail. For seniors, motivation was hard to muster.

Zakiria and Anaste worked shifts at Walmart, and talked to their friends on an endless stream of group chats. When Benny wasn’t finishing his civics exam and caring for his medley of pets—multiple fish, both crested and leopard geckos, and a dog—he worked on his drag act. With the guidance of YouTube, his eye makeup got darker, his brows more arched, his cheekbones brightly reflective. Owen started a whiffle board tournament with his friends, and they helped him sell the contents of his uncle’s storage unit online. His dad had been planning to make his first trip from Alabama to watch him pitch. “I’ll never get that moment back,” Owen says. “It just…sucks, if I can describe it in one word.”

The months of isolation became a source of deep worry for Principal Lewandowski. He could see the layers of stress pile up under his own roof, where his daughter, a junior, was grappling with the loss of her leading role in the school musical. “I’m living it,” he says. “So it’s easier to say [to parents], ‘I understand what you’re going through.’”

Students, staff, and parents alike describe St. Francis High as extremely tight-knit. (“We’re more like a family there,” Zakiria says.) Many of the 500 students have known each other since elementary school, and its open-enrollment program allows a diverse mix of kids from outside the district to enroll.

In late April, after a month at home, Lewandowski started posting mini-updates and pep talks on the school’s Instagram. “You are strong enough to do this,” he said in the first, leaning into the camera. “This is a very tough environment to learn in. I know that, your teachers know that. We are here for you, so reach out if you need help.” A day later: “Students, as we continue to go through this, keep your heads up,” he said. “Smile, try to get outside, enjoy some fresh air. Do not just stay in your rooms watching TikToks all day.”

Each month was more surreal: Prom, school plays, and senior trips had been canceled and replaced with virtual classes, friend hangouts over FaceTime, and school announcements on Instagram. What concerned Lewandowski most, even more than the months of lost education, was the sudden loss of social life. The school had no answer to the question students were constantly asking: When are we coming back to school? “They don't want to live through [the isolation] again,” Lewandowski says. “They don't feel like they can handle it.”

Now, in mid-June, he watched a slow-moving trail of cars line up to leave the parking lot of St. Francis High. Most students hadn’t seen each other since that abrupt day in March, and the parking lot was filled with masked students reuniting with friends and favorite teachers. There would be no stage for speeches and handshakes, but the streets of St. Francis were full.

The victory lap

The parade began its slow-motion loop around town. “Pomp and Circumstance” blared from two speakers in the assistant principal’s truck bed. The cars followed behind, turning past the fields where St. Francis’s sports teams played in better times.

Parents bearing balloons and signs cheered from camping chairs along the route. Students in caps and gowns waved out windows and poked their heads through sunroofs. The twins saw someone to talk to every time their car slowed, Zakiria from the backseat and Anaste from the passenger side. The next day they were having a backyard graduation party—the only one they’d heard of. The following week, Zakiria would have her orientation for University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, virtually.

The parade made a right at the sign welcoming visitors to St. Francis (population 9,266), and cruised past Dobie’s Steak House (established 1954), King Pins sports bar, and a series of sparse strip malls.

Benny gave a reluctant wave to his mom, Kerry. He hadn’t initially wanted to come but was glad he did. He felt ready to start plotting out his next phase: a first kiss, a boyfriend, a spot on a future season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. (“I don't want to get a big head,” he says, “but I definitely want to get on Drag Race.”) As the cars rolled by, Kerry could tell that some kids were doing it out of obligation, but others beamed with pride.

The cars made another right, parading past the police department, the Lion’s Community Center, and the assisted living home. After a rowdy 20 minutes, it closed the loop at the high school entrance.

Owen peeled off to go to a friend’s bonfire. This fall, he’ll go to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study nurse midwifery, a path affirmed by watching nurses work the front lines of the pandemic. The classes may mostly be online, which isn’t the college experience he envisioned. Then again, neither was his senior year. “I guess the fact that there were some memories we don’t have—that will be a memory—the stuff we didn’t get to do,” Owen says. “We’ll look back with, I don’t know if you can say regret, but in anguish. For not being able to finish out school the way we wanted. But we can’t always get what we want.”

Lewandowski, wearing his own set of robes, had folded his 6’5” frame into the school’s golf cart and taken up the parade’s tail. He’d quickly been left in the dust. By the time students had returned to school and began to disperse, the principal was still making his way along the route. The few parents who hadn’t packed up their chairs cheered him on. The parade had gone so well, he thought, he might make it an annual tradition.

Diana Markosian is a Russian-American photographer of Armenian descent. Her work is both conceptual and documentary, exploring memory and place through a layered, interdisciplinary process that uses video and still images. To see more of her work, follow her on Instagram.

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